Photos by Jack Gould (left) and Johan VogelBob Dornan loves bare-knuckled political combat, and Dana Rohrabacher is just as vicious. Though both are Orange County Republicans who served in Congress together, they now despise each other. So the March 2 Dornan-Rohrabacher primary race should have topped Dornan vs. Sanchez I and II in spilt blood. But on Jan. 21—seven weeks before Election Day—the race all but ended when Rohrabacher threw a single, ingenious punch.
On that day, Rohrabacher stood on the floor of the House of Representatives and unveiled the central plank in his 2004 campaign. In the congressman's world, it's not illegal drugs, a shitty economy, burdensome taxes, crime, disease, Big Brother or even fanatical terrorists to fear most. It's undocumented workers—"the most serious threat to the well-being of the American people."
That deft move to the far, far right came just as Dornan was sharpening his attack on Rohrabacher's greatest weakness: his embarrassing support of the Taliban and his ongoing relationships with men federal agents suspect are tied to Osama bin Laden's terrorist network and suicide bombers.
Rohrabacher's camp settled on a re-election strategy that was simultaneously simple, brilliant and vulgar. In California's eclectic, coastal 46th congressional district, nothing—not even odd friendships with suspected terrorists—riles Republican voters more than illegal immigrants. A Bolshevik ranting against Mexicans would win applause in Huntington Beach. Rohrabacher thrives in this atmosphere, and while chasing votes, he's helped shaped it.
Over the years, Rohrabacher has pinned the nation's problems—high taxes, overcrowded highways, poor health care, bad schools, political corruption—on illegal immigrants. Speaking in the House, he even blamed them for wrecking the janitorial business. "If we had not a flood of illegal immigrants, you would have had machines and technology that would have been developed to make a janitor much more efficient," he said. "Maybe he could clean 30 toilets or 100 toilets a night instead of 15 or 20."
Using such logic, the eight-term congressman and self-described libertarian followed his Jan. 21 announcement with a proposed new federal law that he claims will be a "big step" to solve the "uncontrolled flood" of illegal immigration.
No, his plan doesn't increase border security.
Rohrabacher's House Resolution 3722 would require doctors, nurses and hospital administrators nationwide to act as surrogate INS agents. Specifically, emergency-room doctors and staff would have to question, fingerprint or photograph and report to federal agencies people who admit they are illegal immigrants. Any hospital that doesn't comply will be stripped of all federal assistance. Because his idea is "motivated out of love" and not political expediency, Rohrabacher has made an exception. He'll let doctors help injured "illegals" if the patient is obviously "in immediate danger of dying."
"What I'm proposing is very simple," Rohrabacher said before proving otherwise. "If the alien is illegal, once he comes into the hospital, going back to this emergency-room treatment, if the alien is illegal, the hospital must ask about the immigrant's employer and a biometric indicator, meaning a photo or a fingerprint, must be taken, to be determined by the Department of Homeland Security of whether it should be a thumb print or a picture, but that is what they have to do if this person who comes into the emergency room is an illegal immigrant and states for the record that he is an illegal immigrant. So we need to know who they are working for, and we need to know exactly what country they came from and get a fingerprint or a picture. The hospital then uploads this information into a database that is now being set up by the Department of Health and Human Services and, of course, the Department of Homeland Security."
There are more holes in Rohrabacher's idea than in the border itself: What if the illegal immigrant claims he's a resident? Who is going to hunt the people down if they give false addresses or lie about their employment? Who is going to decide if a hospital is complying with this new federal mandate? How much will the program cost? How will U.S. citizens suffer if their local hospital loses federal funds? Doesn't the plan have as much chance of ending illegal immigration as the San Clemente border-patrol stop?
It's no surprise that the proposed legislation was DOA, but not because of liberal outrage. It's the conservatives who control Congress and who view Rohrabacher's bill as nothing more than election-year theatrics. Gay marriage has a better chance of congressional approval.
Opposition isn't limited to congressional Republicans: in recent months, Republican President George W. Bush ordered new federal regulations to make it easier for illegal immigrants to live and work in the U.S.
But keen observers know the congressman's bill has already served its real purpose—campaign fodder. Sadly, nobody enlightened the folks at right-wing media outlets. Everyone from Bill O'Reilly on Fox to LA's John and Ken on KFI-AM invited the congressman on the air, tossed him softball questions and celebrated his "courage" for confronting illegal immigrants.
"We are going to hear about how mean-spirited it is to enforce our immigration laws and how mean-spirited this proposal is," said Rohrabacher. "This bill will probably just generate the most incredible opposition and people pulling their hair out, saying how horrible we are, but the motive behind this bill is a positive motive."
Rohrabacher's premonition about opposition came true. On Jan. 26 and 27, the congressman's aides encouraged the news media to publish allegations that his plan had drawn a telephoned death threat. In a retort likely to show up in his direct-mail pieces, Rohrabacher told his former colleagues at The Orange County Registerthat he would not be "frightened or terrorized" while protecting America.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Buried in the frenzy was Dornan's legitimate campaign issue. Following the Jan. 21 knockout punch, nobody's asking Rohrabacher about his mysterious friendship with Abdurahman Alamoudi. U.S. anti-terrorism officers arrested Alamoudi in September after he allegedly accepted a briefcase stuffed with $340,000 from terrorists working for al-Qaeda and Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
At a January Republican Women's Club function in Palos Verdes, Rohrabacher pretended he'd never heard of Alamoudi. So let's remind him: the terrorist suspect has eaten dinner with Rohrabacher and handed him awards for supporting Arab causes. He and his associates have also given the congressman more than $15,500 in contributions over the years and paid for several of his trips to Arab countries.
But such deception doesn't matter when there's an election to win. On Fox, O'Reilly marveled happily at "the emotion surrounding" the illegal-immigrant issue. "I believe that that issue is the single most important thing that ignited the recall [of Governor Gray Davis]," said O'Reilly.
The Fox host wasn't telling Rohrabacher anything he didn't already know. The congressman, who hasn't yet summoned the courage to debate Dornan, smiled. Was he daydreaming about the knockout punch he landed on Dornan's chin? Was he laughing to himself that he'd outflanked Dornan on the right? Or was he just relieved that he'd once again evaded questions about his ties to suspected terrorists?